Childhoods stolen at gunpoint

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“Small children lack linguistic or cultural frames to put around their perceptions. Reality enters them torrentially, without passing through the schematizing filters or words and concepts… The immediate absorption of reality, which mystics and poets strive for in vain, is what children do every day.”

Cesar Aira, The New York Review of the Books, p.38, 13 August, 2015, vol LXII, Number 13


Growing up is hard to do, doubly so in a community polarised by long standing strife with little hope for a comprehensive solution. To navigate in the sea of uncertainty, with adults who can hardly answer the complex questions for fear of repercussions, leaves many of those growing up in such circumstances full of doubt and self destructive tendencies that could turn into outward hostility.

However, for those endowed with special talents to record unfolding events in visual or written form, coupled with boundless amount of courage and willingness to share deeply personal experiences, it can be a starting point for lifelong creative journey. The incessant need to draw, and the ability to do so rather superbly, brings a measure of solace to Munnu, a boy growing up in Kashmir.

Munnu: A Boy from Kashmir is an extensive graphic novel by Malik Sajad, who begins his story at the age of seven and keeps us following him for another eighteen years. Drawn strictly in black and white, with text pared down to vital information, the sharpness of observations seems to be heightened by the narrator’s young age and the ability of the author to keep the clarity of voice consistent throughout the novel.

The tale of Munnu unfolds on the background of family life, with strong ties between five siblings — sister Shannaz and brothers Bilal, Akhtar, Adil and Munnu — the youngest one, hence the name, father Gulya and mother Haseena.

This tightly knit family is only a seeking protection from the dangerous and confusing world that surrounds it — it is rather a fragile unit that can be destroyed at any moment by the external circumstances such as the frequent parades set up to identify those opposed to military presence.

When youth and adult males are taken to such identification parades many personal animosities and old grievances could be exploited. The informers become omnipotent in the atmosphere of general mistrust, fear and suspicion. Those justly or unjustly identified as opposed to the status quo might never be seen again — some are returned to their families as bleeding corpses.

The funerals attended by the whole community, including young children spark more resentment and feed the explosive atmosphere of simmering animosity. Acts of violence are witnessed since early age while the borders and the dividing line between warring neighbours — India and Pakistan, with the international community keeping a safe distance — ensnarl the valley.

But not all in the book is framed by the aura of conflict — there are tender passages describing children’s games, celebrations of holidays and warm hearted interaction of family members and neighbours. There is humour and gentle irony.

The cast of the characters presented through the pages is endlessly rich — they conjure up a world populated by hardworking Kashmiris, citizens disaffected by the division of the country, the victims of armed conflict, tortures, the resigned, the hot headed, the do gooders and the wise ones.

Rendered in black and white, with Kashmiris presented as hangul, a red stag, the state animal, the expressive power of the drawings alludes to the knowledge of early 20th century German Expressionist prints – works much admired by Sajad for their conceptual underpinning, the inclination to fuse art, life and politics while simultaneously examining aspects of nature, trends within the society and the power of direct expression and commentary.

The novella is organised chronologically into nineteen sections of various lengths. Most could function as short graphic novels on their own. We follow Munnu through school and the tumultuous events surrounding the arrest of his principal and student demonstrations in his support, closing of the school, the enrolment into Darasgah and the youthful infatuation with a beautiful classmate, Saina.